Badly Drawn Boy: The Complete Work
Updated October 04, 2017 with new rankings.
When Damon Gough’s music started appearing in the late 90s, the “slacker” thing was dying down, and in some ways his early work represented that movement’s natural progression toward dubbier (druggier) sounds.
Through a string of playful experiments on his Twisted Nerve label (which he-founded with Andy Votel), the “folktronic” descriptor quickly attached itself to Gough’s music and, as reductive as it might be as a label, it was also fairly accurate. So was the “Badly Drawn Boy” moniker he adopted.
Right alongside lo-fi guitar shuffles like “It Came From the Ground,” a song you could just as easily imagine Elliot Smith writing, were trip-hop inflected loops like “My Friend Cubilas.” Which you couldn’t imagine Smith writing as easily .
The stylistic contrasts in the early Badly Drawn Boy oeuvre were striking but not random. They sounded like they came from the same author, albeit one who seemed to be as much a tinkerer in the DJ Shadow mold as he was a coffee shop songwriter. By the time he released Hour of Bewilderbeast, he had carved out sonic real estate that belonged pretty firmly to him and him alone. He was an innovator, combining ingredients new and old just-so to form something thoroughly modern and magical. Bewilderbeast is a classic case of the whole amounting to more than the sum of its parts, and next to its homespun wonders, the rest of his catalog continues to be (somewhat unfavorably) compared.
But innovative debut aside, Gough is consequential as a songwriter who, like many celebrated artists of his era, has penned some incredibly articulate songs about depression, and herein his post-Bewilderbeast output does much of the heavy lifting. Starting with his commercial breakthrough, the soundtrack to the Weitz brothers’ About a Boy (2002).
The creative constraints for About a Boy, a comedic film largely concerned with depression and its effects on a handful of people, naturally resulted in melancholy songs. The soundtrack’s biggest, most popular songs are thematically concerned with hidden wounds, like “Something to Talk About,” which considers “ a boy who’s bleeding” and “calling out for extra help.” The soundtrack’s centerpiece, the piano-driven “Silent Sigh,” is itself a soft euphemism for what belies the quiet desperation heard in the song. And more explicit (and devastating) still is “A Minor Incident,” a simple folk rumination on suicide.
Crucially, none of these heavy sentiments overwhelm the songs. They are tempered with bouncy rhythms and sweet melodies. Songs like “River, Sea, Ocean” come off like Paul McCartney descendants. The aforementioned “Something to Talk About” sounds like something Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco or peak Belle & Sebastian would have made.
This version of Badly Drawn Boy, if not as eye-opening as the world-building tune smith of Bewilderbeast, was pretty damn good too! Was this version the real Badly Drawn Boy?
The tension between Bewilderbeast and About a Boy only deepened the mystery (and appeal) of the unlikely, beanie-wearing pop star. Through two albums, Gough demonstrated he could write just about anything and it glittered like gold. Where could he go from there?
That’s up for debate. For many, About a Boy was the last great Badly Drawn Boy album. Subsequent releases might present aspects of Badly Drawn Boy that people liked, but never again would the ingredients collide in such tasteful ways as they did on Bewilderbeast and, to a lesser extent, About a Boy.
For a lengthier discussion, here are the albums of Badly Drawn Boy, ranked from least to best.
8. Is There Nothing We Could Do? (2009)
At the end of the Born in the UK (2006) cycle, Gough took a break from music.
Born in the UK hadn’t made the desired impact, and there was a sense Gough was running out of time to reassert his place as a consequential songwriter. He re-emerged three years later with Is There Nothing We Could Do?, the soundtrack to a strange little ITV1 drama called The Fattest Man in Britain.
It’s the closest Gough has ever come to purely “scoring” source material. Most of the album is comprised of brief piano-and-string interludes, and the other songs present themselves in similarly stripped-down arrangements. The results are actually quite lovely, taken on their own terms, with “Just Look At Us Now” standing out as the album’s highlight.
But by and large, Is There Nothing We Could Do? is resolutely one-note and a little lugubrious. It’s a minor Badly Drawn Boy album that finds Gough trying to rediscover his craft. The next soundtrack he would attempt, Being Flynn (2012) would find him in much better form.
Highlights: “Just Look At Us Now”
7. Have You Fed the Fish? (2002)
The second volume in Badly Drawn Boy’s early 00’s L.A. period finds him taking a more flamboyant approach to the pop territory he mined on About a Boy. He re-teams with that album’s co-producer for a well-earned victory lap about the disorienting effects of fame. It’s his outright funniest work, at times recalling a ‘70s comedy album more than a proper rock/pop statement.
Even before the first song “Coming in to Land” begins, the album introduces itself with a joke (it’s right there on the album cover). And then it’s repeated on “Coming in to Land,” lurching into view on the backs of cheesy Wreckless Eric keyboards and guitar riffs before seguing into the title track, which begins with a Springsteenian piano treatment. It’s miles away from Hour of Bewilderbeast, and that seems to be the point: Things have changed in Gough’s world. Drastically so.
On chunky rocker “Born Again,” for example, Gough jokingly imagines his newfound status as a “miracle,” one to be judged “by force, not by size,” albeit one where, “the more I look at it, the less I find.” A reveal as sobering as it is smirking.
He expounds on the wonder of his new life more winningly on the mariachi disco of “All Possibilities,” one of the album’s most infectious songs: “All possibilities are landing at my feet/There’s nothing I can see but possibilities.” Who wouldn’t be swayed by such optimism?
“All Possibilities” also kicks off the album’s defining medley, without which Have You Fed the Fish? would be pretty slight. After dissolving to the softly sketched acoustic lament “I Was Wrong,” we’re thrust into the gently anthemic “You Were Right,” concluding with the Saint Etienne-lite interlude “Centerpeace” and the ballad “How?” The medley succinctly captures the strengths of Badly Drawn Boy’s L.A. pop period; lush arrangements, elastic melodies and clever sentiments.
The Don McClean cum Elvis Costello “You Were Right” is case in point as he conveys in equal parts amazement and sly humor the unlikeliness of his story:
“And I just had a dream the other night, I was married to the Queen/And Madonna lived next door, I think she took a shine to me/And the kids were all grown up, but I had to turn her down ‘cuz I was still in love with you/I’m turning Madonna down, I’m calling it my best move/I’ll get her tickets to what she needs.”
Like most victory laps (see the likes of Bankrupt! or Green or countless hip hop records), this concession can come off a little condescending. Where charm was a crucial ingredient on both Bewilderbeast and About a Boy, Have You Fed the Fish? is where it begins to wear a little thin. Just a little.
It’s not all solipsism on Have You Fed the Fish? though. There’s a genuine eagerness to share the fruits of his zero-to-hero story with a growing audience, a victory for the little guy as everyone’s victory. And it is pretty funny. It just turned out to be something of a creative dead end.
Highlights: “40 Days, 40 Fights” “All Possibilities,” “You Were Right”
6. One Plus One Is One (2004)
Earlier in his career, Gough had been mischaracterized as a sad sack type, a favorite label of derision for British songwriters of a certain sensitive persuasion.
It wasn’t until One Plus One is One, the follow-up to 2002’s jokey Have You Fed the Fish? that the label rang true.
The easiest reading of One Plus One is as a knee-jerk reaction to Have You Fed the Fish?, both that album’s polished L.A. treatment and the whirlwind circumstances that hatched it. In a short few years since playing small clubs and distributing copies of his EPs by hand, Gough had won the Mercury Prize, soundtracked an Oscar-nominated hit and played Glastonbury. The hangover was inevitable.
And what a hangover One Plus One is. All glockenspiel, flutes and tape hiss, One Plus One opens with the sound of Gough shuffling into view, stepping off of what sounds like a creaky old elevator and turning on some lights. After a few pensive strokes of a slightly out-of-tune acoustic, Gough sighs, “Back to be being who I was before…” It’s unclear how happy he is with that development. Later, on “Four Leaf Clover,” he advises, “Take your dreams where no one can find them.” Turns out fame is a heavy price to pay for your art.
If One Plus One finds Gough returning “home” in some ways, it’s more as a prodigal son than conquering hero. He might be revisiting the lo-fi well that produced Bewilderbeast’s wonders, but this time, Gough is armed with powerful knowledge — knowledge of the world’s cruelties and fortunes. His answer is a Badly Drawn Boy record without a whiff of a single, or joy for that matter. It’s also defiantly British, with allusions to Nick Drake and Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull.
In interviews, Gough spoke of the recent deaths — including that of Elliot Smith — that influenced the album. They show up in songs either steeped in, or specifically about, depression. On “Logic of a Friend,” it appears as “a beast licking holes in your door.” In the purposefully leaden “Year of the Rat,” Gough embarks on a search for “new energy” he can’t seem to find. “The Blossoms,” meanwhile, offers a curmudgeonly interlude, and “Stockport,” the album’s standout instrumental, plays like rain-splattered foliage.
Throughout, Gough draws our attention to the flaws and manipulation of the recording. On “Easy Love,” there is a loud “pop!” that Gough credits to a ghostly presence. Similarly, “Life Turned Upside Down” takes the title quite literally and features vocals recorded backwards and then looped forward to make for a slightly trippy effect.
He’s also interested in the way we bend time and the implications for mortality. “This Is That New Song” is the most poignant iteration on this temporal theme, as Gough imagines a conversation with a friend who’s long gone: “This is that old dream I told you about twenty years ago.”
The best reason to investigate One Plus One, though, is album closer “Holy Grail,” a ruminative deathbed hymn that builds to a soaring, children’s choir-backed finale. It manages to be a lot less tortured than it sounds. In fact, it manages a degree of transcendence few except maybe the fresh-faced Arcade Fire were capable of back in 2004.
If naivete and a kind of mystical romanticism defined Bewilderbeast, wry bitterness and sad wonder pervades One Plus One Is One. Or, to use a Beatles analogy, it’s his Lennon to Bewilderbeast’s McCartney.
Highlights: “This Is That New Song,” “Another Devil Dies,” “Four Leaf Clover,” “Holy Grail”
5. It’s What I’m Thinking Part One: Photographing Snowflakes (2010)
Whatever the results, 2009’s Is There Nothing We Could Do? seemed to revive Gough’s songwriting process. He’d found a mode of working that allowed him to create more instinctively, and you can hear the fruits of that process on It’s What I’m Thinking Part One: Photographing Snowflakes (2010).
It sounds very much like a GarageBand record, just a guy glitching out and looping guitars on his laptop, not unlike the early EPs he made with co-conspirator Andy Votel, albeit with different tools.
But where those EPs were playful and welcoming, It’s What I’m Thinking is a bit cold. It’s some of his loneliest-sounding music, even as it strives for optimism.
On the gently skittering “The Order of Things,” his voice is accompanied by the soft patter of a drum machine, back-looped guitars and other fauna lurking at the edges of the mix. The song itself appears to be about Gough’s newfound process as he openly questions his raison d’être, only to hope that making a change — personally, artistically — can bring even the smallest revelation: “All I know is I don’t know what this means/But sometimes it’s good to rearrange the order of things.”
On “What Tomorrow Brings,” Gough uses a chord progression similar to his earlier masterwork “Magic in the Air.” And like that song, he’s interested in capturing the excitement of a pending moment. “If this is your last photograph/just smile, stand tall, you could have it all.”
With song titles like “Too Many Miracles,” “A Pure Accident,” and “A Beautiful Idea,” It’s What I’m Thinking takes a more explicit approach to one of Gough’s favorite themes: life’s ephemeral nature.
The formula reaches its full potential on the purposeful “I Saw You Walk Away,” which recalls the Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” (said to be an influence). It’s a song that sees Gough play with one of his other favorite conceits — the way our minds manipulate time.
He quite literally replays a scene in his head consecutively, slightly altering it the second time, as if to reinforce its surreal nature: “And for the first time it feels real, since the day I saw you walk away, from my head down to my shoulders, it feels numb/And for the first time I can feel, how it felt to watch you walk away, from the ground up to my shoulders, it feels numb.”
If It’s What I’m Thinking has a fatal flaw, it’s homogeneity. With the exception of “I Saw You Walk Away,” most of these songs evaporate into each other, an effect that the gauzy, distant production only furthers. As much as Gough is searching and, at times, connecting on these songs, he also sounds a little disembodied from the proceedings, as though he’s watching them as he’s performing them. A poignant, if alienating, effect.
Highlights: “Too Many Miracles,” “I Saw You Walk Away,” “This Electric”
4. Born in the UK (2006)
Say what you want about the songs on Born in the UK: Gough is singing the hell out of them.
Of his post-About a Boy output, Born in the UK has recovered the most completely.
Released to indifferent ears at the time, it has a curious reputation with Badly Drawn Boy fans, some brandishing it as the reason Gough had to reset with Is There Nothing We Could Do? and It’s What I’m Thinking Part One.
But with a little distance, Born in the UK is a noteworthy Badly Drawn Boy record for several reasons.
First, the title is a little misleading. Yes, it specifically invokes Springsteen, of whom Gough is a huge fan. But Born in the UK doesn’t sound so much like Born in the USA as it does like other big rock records of that era. You know, the Jimmy Iovine-helmed products like Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, or, if we’re picking Springsteen records, The River. The kinds of records few besides Craig Finn bother to make anymore.
Its polished sound also squares it with Have You Fed the Fish?, though where that album coasted on camp and humor, Born in the UK is as committed and sincere as Gough ever gets. Nowhere other than Bewilderbeast does he sound so invested in the songs. Born in the UK takes considerable risks insofar as Gough seems resolutely unembarrassed to write and sing big, romantic pop songs resolutely out of touch with the musical moment at the time. Good on him.
“Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind,” the album’s unlikely lead single, is Exhibit A. The term “vocal acrobatics” doesn’t usually come to mind in relation to Badly Drawn Boy, but that’s what Gough delivers, finding a sweet upper register in a challenging melody without straining credibility. At all.
Though the sparkling production recalls Suede’s more saccharine era, “Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind,” and to a large degree the rest of the album, re-contextualizes Gough as one of his generation’s most idiosyncratic singers, a point in scarce evidence on the workmanlike One Plus One Is One. Taken on those terms, Born in the UK is mostly successful.
The schmaltz does occasionally work against him; “Promises” and “Without a Kiss,” ballads on the back half of the album, are pretty tedious. But when the formula works, it soars, like on the Bacharachish ballad “The Long Way Round,” which gets a ton of mileage out of a carousel (both the ride and the Kodak variety) and Gough’s voice, presented here as an instrument tumescent with pain. If not one of the five best Badly Drawn Boy songs, it might be the best sung song.
Some of the more divisive songs on the album are the loudest, particularly “Welcome to the Overground,” an unabashed show tune with an impressive boldness. You could in fact make the case “Welcome to the Overground” showcases one of Gough’s favorite themes: that the everyday mundane can be the stuff of showbiz.
Hence, as a humorist, perhaps Gough doesn’t get as much credit as he should. Witness the following exchange between Gough and…Gough on album-opener “Intro/Swimming Pool Part 1.”
Gough: Do you think it matters where you were born?
Gough: No, not really. It only matters that you can be proud of where you came from.
Gough: I don’t think I know who I am anymore.
Gough: And what about the world?
Gough: What do you mean?
Gough: Well, if the world was a better place, some of these bad things wouldn’t happen.
Gough: Yeah, but… there’s good things all around. You just have to look longer and harder to see them sometimes.
That’s ostensibly the album’s thesis, and in 2006, it was indefensible as art. But a solid ten years later, post Brexit, post Trump, it’s not quite as easy to laugh off….
Elsewhere, he sends up bourgeois ethos in a witty haze:
Praise God for the water, our son and our daughter/The sun is here, it will stay awhile, long enough to bring out a smile/The swimming pool is on order, we’ll fill it with water, then swim to the other side, full of life and filled with pride
Other softly sage political statements abound, particularly on the title track, a montage of Brit punk iconography that, for Gough, includes Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon. But Born in the UK is at its best when it revels in the personal over the political. As a collection of gamely-performed pop songs, projected in widescreen, it’s a Badly Drawn gem.
Highlights: “Degrees of Separation,” “Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind,” “The Long Way Round,” “The Time of Times”
3. Being Flynn (2012)
Another soundtrack collaboration with About a Boy director Paul Weiz, Being Flynn successfully updates the Badly Drawn Boy template with a rewarding mix of burnished folk songs and melancholic instrumentals. For fans of Bewilderbeast, that’s a formula in need of no fixing.
You can hear Gough connecting to and deconstructing the more classicist facets of both Bewilderbeast and About a Boy. Instrumental “Asleep at the Wheel” conjures the pathos of recital figures like Bewilderbeast’s “The Shining.” “Harbor Street” comes off like a more avuncular version of About a Boy’s “A Peak You Reach.” “It’s Too Late” is an update of “Once Around the Block.” Elsewhere, “The Space Between My Ears,” with its flagrant Van Halen “Jump” synths, is as adventurous a mid tempo song he’s ever written (and flashes some trademark humor about aging).
“Picking Up the Pieces” is similarly a self-referential slice of melancholy that sees Gough repeat the line “Picking up the pieces/coming to your senses.”
Something else you can say about Being Flynn: it doesn’t contain a bad song, something that can’t be said of much of his post-About a Boy output.
Being Flynn manages to sound polished without sounding slick or overproduced, melancholic in the true sense of the word without being overwrought. Coupled with some of his most sophisticated lyrics about disappointment, the songs’ burnished character askew some of the more mawkish tendencies that marred previous releases.
If Being Flynn slavishly recalls past glories, you can hardly blame Gough for returning to the territory where he excels. It’s like being reacquainted with an old friend.
Highlights: “I’ll Keep the Things You Throw Away,” “The Space Between My Ears,” “Asleep at the Wheel”
2. About A Boy (2002)
So began Gough’s “Hollywood period.”
It’s important to realize that at this stage in the game, the wider world still didn’t really understand who or what Badly Drawn Boy was — including those who’d fallen in love with Hour of Bewilderbeast (which is itself largely defined by a hard-to-pin-down eclecticism). As is the case with any sophomore record, the question, “What does a Badly Drawn Boy record really sound like?” had yet to be answered.
With a bigger budget and Nick Hornby’s source material (and ringing endorsement) in hand, Gough delivers a slicker, more straightforward take on Bewilderbeast’s more upbeat numbers like “Disillusion” with the exception of “Silent Sigh” and “A Minor Incident.”
But the point is, it delivers. Even kitschy experiments like “File Me Away” and “S.P.A.T. (Single Parents Alone Together)” work due to low key, dinky charm; in moments like these, it sounds like Gough is mining erstwhile sitcom jingles for a laugh.
Perhaps most importantly, the soundtrack’s release was the height of Badly Drawn mania. In the U.S., at least, you were just as likely to see an ad for the soundtrack as you were for the film.
As the little beanie icon on the film’s poster signals, the Badly Drawn brand had arrived, and people were talking.
At the time, it seemed like a cagey, veteran move to deliver a soundtrack as your second album, a way to shirk second album expectations while benefiting from some cross-promotion. Arguably, not since Prince’s Batman record had the commercial prospects of a movie and the accompanying soundtrack been so closely tied. In 2002, truly the beginning of the end of the traditional music industry, it would be one of the last times such a strategy for a budding artist could pay such handsome dividends.
The great irony is that About a Boy represents the last time Gough’s music would be so free of self-consciousness.
Highlights: “Something to Talk About,” “River Sea Ocean,” “A Minor Incident”
1. Hour Of Bewilderbeast (2000)
Hour of Bewilderbeast, Gough’s first full-length and definitive brand statement as Badly Drawn Boy, is not so much an out-of-nowhere debut as the peak of a fertile period that saw him releasing music at his own pace across several EPs.
Gough and his associates weren’t the only ones trying to update singer-songwriter conventions with modern eclecticism and production techniques (Beth Orton comes to mind). At times it sounds like Being There-era Wilco or the oft-compared Elliot Smith. Nick Drake here. Paul McCartney there. But Bewilderbeast remains an enduring entry in the bedroom pop genre because nothing else sounds quite like it.
Bewilderbeast is immersive to the point of enshrouding intimacy, and as much as audiences have attributed this quality to its homespun sound, Gough’s voice and imagery are just as responsible.
“Magic in the Air” is intimacy realized. You can practically hear the quickening of his pulse as he recalls, “We laughed so much, then we cried, and you left your shoes in the tree with me/I’ll wear them to your house tonight/Magic in the air tonight.”
A contemporary analogue would be an artist like Frank Ocean, the way he draws you into his world and makes you want to stay. And like Ocean, Gough toys with notions of identity in ways that are both vulnerable and seductive.
On “Camping Next to Water,” he playfully casts himself as a mystical creature of the North. After the rock star posing of the antecedent Britpop decade, Gough turns the page with an exotic mystery: “As the fire smolders, I will never grow older, because I drink from waterfalls/The stars above shine on me, I beckon them to fall on me, I’ll catch and save them in a jar.”
On Disillusion, he sneers, “Seems you created your own illusion, fueled by an image of me.” It’s a game of course. If the image is fueling the illusion, Gough is fueling the image and having a laugh as he does it.
On “Magic in the Air,” before the languid piano that introduces the song floats in, Gough jokes in the background, “The ballad of ‘shepinando,’ take six.” Who is “shepinando?” Doesn’t matter. He knows you can’t keep up with him. “Why are you trembling so much? I don’t think I ever felt so good,” he sings on “Another Pearl,” and he sounds genuinely puzzled before skipping on ahead. “This is the color of my world, stay and watch me find another pearl.”
In a word, Bewilderbeast is a flirtation. It finds Gough using playfulness to break the ice and draw the listener close. A fitting framework, as Gough wrote many of the songs about a woman he was wooing simply known as “Clare” (they would go on to be longtime partners and parents of two children).
So Gough is in a flirtatious mood throughout, keeping his target guessing as he flits through an array of styles and vocal identities, some fey (“Fall in a River”), some lissom (“Once Around the Block”), all soulful in their naivete. The album’s eclecticism is purposeful, obscuring his “real” identity until he is ready to reveal it at a choice moment (and in some sense, the beanie he became known for might have served a similar purpose, initially).
And it worked. Entirely by design, Gough’s cocky playfulness charmed people, made them fall in love with Badly Drawn Boy, and it’s arguably this quality that they would miss the most on later releases.
Bewilderbeast has always been contextualized as the beginning of something — the literal beginning of Gough’s career, his romance with his partner Clare, noughties eclecticism, the traditional label system giving way to new means of distribution and discovery.
The more closely matching reality is that Hour of Bewilderbeast marked the end of a period in his art; a period during which he was discovering just how good he was right alongside his audience and having a laugh while doing it. A fleeting feeling that can’t ever really be recaptured or recreated.
Highlights: “The Shining,” “Fall In A River,” “Once Around The Block,” “Magic In The Air,” “Pissing In The Wind,” “Disillusion”